Why Do Babies Die?

Why Do Babies Die?

It is a common myth that here in the United States of America, all babies are born healthy and new parents do not need to worry about their infants dying. Many people believe that infant mortality and premature death is something only parents in developing countries worry about. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

American babies still die from many problems that we CAN prevent, along with complications we have no idea how to stop. Many of our babies that die are born months too early (premature), with serious birth defects, or die due to complications the mother faces during her pregnancy. Some babies are born too small and sickly because the mother smoked while she was pregnant, or did not get enough nutritious food to eat and grow her baby.

There are many steps we can all take to help each pregnancy end in a healthy baby. One of the most important steps to take is to help all women be healthy BEFORE they become pregnant.

Causes of Death

Any baby that is born alive and dies before its first birthday is considered an infant death. Even if the baby only takes a few breaths or only has a heartbeat for less than a minute, that baby was alive. Stillborn babies are called fetal deaths, not infant deaths. Though there are many different problems that can contribute to a baby dying, the actual causes of death are those listed below.

Premature Births: Born too soon, and too small.

Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death in our community and in North Carolina as a whole.

  • Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks. Any baby born before 37 weeks is considered premature.
  • The babies at highest risk to die are the ones born “very premature”, before 28 weeks of pregnancy.
  • The overwhelming majority of our local babies that die are born more than three months premature. They are so small they can actually be held in the palm of your hand.
  • Premature babies are not just small, they are not finished developing yet. They often have lungs that do not work on their own, brains that have not finished growing and low resistance to illnesses.
  • Many premature babies do live, but may have major health problems for life. Health challenges might include blindness, cerebral palsy, major problems eating or breathing, and developmental delays.

Premature birth and its complications are the #1 cause of death of babies in the United States. It’s not known what causes preterm labor and premature birth, but there are certain risk factors that may make you more likely to give birth early. We can also help prevent premature birth by helping all women be healthy before they become pregnant.

Risk Factors for Preterm Birth:

Factors that increase the risk of preterm birth include the following:

  • Having a previous preterm birth
  • Having a short cervix
  • Short time between pregnancies
  • History of certain types of surgery on the uterus or cervix
  • Certain pregnancy complications, such as multiple pregnancy and vaginal bleeding
  • Lifestyle factors such as low prepregnancy weight, smoking during pregnancy, and substance abuse during pregnancy

Prevention of Premature Birth:

Learn the signs of preterm labor. Women who start labor during their 5th or 6th month of pregnancy often are not even aware that they have started preterm labor. Learn these signs so you can know when to call the doctor or go to the emergency room!

  • Change in type of vaginal discharge (watery, mucus, or bloody)
  • Increase in amount of discharge
  • Pelvic or lower abdominal pressure
  • Constant low, dull backache
  • Mild abdominal cramps, with or without diarrhea
  • Regular or frequent contractions or uterine tightening, often painless
  • Ruptured membranes (your water breaks with a gush or a trickle of fluid)
  • Regular or frequent contractions that make your belly tighten like a fist. The contractions may or may not be painful.

For more information on premature birth, visit the March of Dimes and ACOG education webpage.

Birth Defects

  • Each year in the US, more than 120,000 babies are born with a birth defect.
  • Birth defects are the second leading cause of infant death in NC and in the nation.
  • Most birth defects happen within the first three months of pregnancy, often in the first couple of weeks and before a woman even has missed a period.
  • Some of the most common birth defects are problems with the heart or neural tube defects like spina bifida.
  • A woman’s body can sometimes tell early in a pregnancy if her fetus has a very severe birth defect. These pregnancies often end early in a miscarriage.
  • We do not know the cause of about 60% of birth defects. The other 40% may be prevented.

How to Prevent Birth Defects

  • All women and girls who can one day become pregnant should take a daily multivitamin that includes 400 mcg of Folic Acid. This vitamin can prevent up to 70% of birth defects to the brain or spine such as spina bifida. However, folic acid only works to prevent birth defects during the very early days of pregnancy. All women should take a daily multivitamin for at least two months before they become pregnant. Start the vitamin habit today – it’s never too early to take care of your health!
  • If you become pregnant, stop drinking alcohol. There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant. Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This can cause brain disorders, mental retardation, stunted growth, and other birth defects.
  • When you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, be wary of hazardous chemicals in household products, fumes, and even fertilizers. Carefully read product labels and ask your health care provider about any substances you are unsure of.
  • If birth defects run in your family, consider seeing a genetic counselor before you try to have a baby. Knowing your risks can help you prepare for the possibility of life with a special needs child or may lead you to consider adoption.

For more information on birth defect prevention and education, visit the CDC education webpage.

About Us

The Forsyth County Infant Mortality Reduction Coalition is a community partnership housed within the Forsyth County Department of Public Health.

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799 North Highland Avenue
Winston-Salem, NC 27101

(336) 703-3260
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